DMB really is one on "Lillywhite'

Published Jul. 19, 2001|Updated Sep. 10, 2005

The studio album that wasn't meant to be finally is. On the eve of a national tour of North American stadiums, which brings the Dave Matthews Band to the Ice Palace on Monday, Matthews' The Lillywhite Sessions surfaced on the Internet, apparently without the singer's authorization, and has become something of a cause celebre among Matthews aficionados.

They're asserting in chat rooms on the Web that the 12-song disc, the product of an aborted recording session last year with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, is better than Everyday (RCA), the studio album Matthews eventually put out in its place in February.

I'd go a step further. Not only is The Lillywhite Sessions better than Everyday, which has already sold 2-million copies, it's the best Matthews album ever. Whereas Everyday paired Matthews with hitmeister-for-hire Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Aerosmith) to produce as lifeless a piece of corporate pop product as Matchbox Twenty or Train could ever manufacture, Lillywhite Sessions achieves what all of Matthews' previous four studio releases and his myriad concert recordings couldn't: make the case for the Dave Matthews Band as a subtle, serious, song-driven groove band.

Matthews described the sessions in an interview from his home in Charlottesville, Va., just before heading out on tour last summer, giving a great deal of insight into the album's intimate tone.

"It's very close to be being done," Matthews said of the Lillywhite sessions, which at that point he intended to release as his fifth studio album. "It's got something relaxed about it, because we're doing it at home, so it's got a lot of sitting-outside-on-the-porch sound to it, taking walks and playing Frisbee and throwing footballs around. That's not so much in the style or the topics, but it comes out in the feel. Overall, it's more acoustic, and we're recording in a circle, just the five of us looking at each other. There is more space in the arrangements, less improvising. This album is more straightforward, melancholy, which is a good thing on a rainy day."

It sounded like a refreshing change, away from the busy-ness of past Matthews efforts.

So it was something of a shock when Matthews returned from his 2000 summer tour, shelved The Lillywhite Sessions and flew to Los Angeles to work on songs with Ballard, master of the verse-chorus Insta-hit approach to recordmaking.

Matthews' band _ saxophonist LeRoi Moore, violinist Boyd Tinsley, drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard _ joined the sessions only after the songs had been written and arranged, and Everyday makes them sound like Everyband, an anonymous collection of session musicians.

The Lillywhite Sessions, in contrast, is shaped by restraint and the finest, most nuanced vocal performances and most consistently memorable melodies Matthews has ever recorded. His baritone evokes Peter Gabriel at his smokiest, a mixture of gravity and grace on Digging a Ditch, and he lifts the mood and even a few bits of lyric inspiration from Gabriel's Red Rain on JTR (John the Revelator).

Matthews said he shelved The Lillywhite Sessions because he found the album too downcast. Indeed, the songs are replete with the darkest imagery the singer has ever negotiated, but at times the tone raises the artistic ante.

Grace Is Gone approaches the haunted air of classic country murder ballads such as Long Black Veil, which Matthews has occasionally performed in concert, and Bartender builds to a desperate wail that feels earned, given the crisis of conscience that precedes it.

According to a profile in Rolling Stone magazine, Matthews was talked out of releasing the album after the band's representative at RCA told the singer "I'm not feeling this record as a fan," record-company double-talk that essentially means, "I don't hear any hits."

If the quotation is accurate, it shows once again how myopic and bottom-line conscious the record industry has become, because on The Lillywhite Sessions the Dave Matthews Band has never sounded like more of a band. On Everyday, it has never sounded like less of one. How crushing to realize that Matthews was essentially bullied out of following his artistic instincts.

Thanks to the Internet pirates who pried The Lillywhite Sessions from obscurity, his fans have the opportunity to hear Matthews in his darkest _ and finest _ hour. And those of us who never gave Matthews a second thought now have reason to reconsider.